Brian Keaney

Tag: science

Sharing in our Master’s subatomic particles

First posted at Millennial.

I was especially excited for the 4th of July this year.  It has always been a special holiday for me, seeing as I love both history and the beach, and I get heavy doses of both each Independence Day.  This year, however, neither of those got me half as excited as what was taking place half a world away, in a city where no one cared that it was the 236th anniversary of our liberty.

The Higgs boson, commonly known as the God Particle, is what gives everything in the universe mass and has long been predicted but never seen.  Until now.  Researchers at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva announced this summer that they have likely detected it, and in the world of particle physics this is a Really Big Deal.

While the practical applications of this discovery far exceed my limited intellect, I am sure it is only a matter of time before someone comes up with one (and then commercializes it).  As Pope John Paul the Great has noted, “so far has science come, especially in this century, that its achievements never cease to amaze us.”  Similarly, the other His Holiness, the Dalai Llama, has written that “the amount of scientific knowledge and the range of technological possibilities are so enormous that the only limitations on what we may do may be the results of insufficient imagination.”

In his 2005 book, The Universe in a Single Atom, the Dalai Llama beautifully shows within the context of Tibetan Buddhism that Pope John Paul was correct in saying that “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”  He goes on to propose ways that modern science and his ancient Buddhist faith can complement each other and further each other’s goals, but also finds a few places to critique science and its limitations from a Buddhist perspective as well.

Every chapter explores a different science, everything from quantum mechanics to neurobiology, but for my money the last is his best.  In Ethics and the New Genetics the Dalai Llama becomes noticeably more impassioned, and he gives voice to worries about everything from cloning to Frankenfood.  It is also here that he offers ardent cautions on not letting our scientific ability get too far ahead of our ethical assessments.

The human capacity for moral reasoning has kept pace with developments in human knowledge and its capacities.  But with the new era in biogenetic science, the gap between moral reasoning and our technological capacities has reached a critical point.  The rapid increase of human knowledge and the technological possibilities emerging in the new genetic science are such that it is now almost impossible for ethical thinking to keep pace with these changes.

While I disagree that our technological ability has outpaced our ability to think about the ethical ramifications, I do worry that if someone gets too wrapped up in their work—whatever the field—that the question of whether or not I can often times becomes more important than whether or not Ishould.  Especially when we are talking about the fundamentals of life, it behooves us to take a step back from time to time and look at the bigger picture.

Here once again the late Pontiff for whom our generation is named cautioned us in Fides et Ratio: “And since it [the belief that science is the only form of valid knowledge] leaves no space for the critique offered by ethal judgement, the scientistic mentality has succeeded in leading many to think that if something is technically possible it is therefore morally admissible.”

Of course it is not only science that is susceptible to this fallacy.  We have seen the effects of financial markets and consumer-driven excess where it was never considered whether or not pecuniary decisions were wise or just, but simply whether or not they were profitable.  Bankers, like scientists, and all the rest of us for that matter, “lacking any ethical point of reference, are in danger of putting at the centre of their concerns something other than the human person and the entirety of the person’s life.”

While I was never much of a student of it, I do love science.  I genuinely was excited when the Higgs boson was discovered, but I want to make sure that we never lose sight of the fact that these great scientific advances should be a means to improving the lot of humanity and not simply ends in themselves.

To those whom our late Holy Father has called “these brave pioneers of scientific research, to whom humanity owes so much of its current development,” the Dalai Llama has said that “the issue is no longer whether we should or should not acquire knowledge and explore its technological potentials.  Rather, the issue is how to use this new knowledge and power in the most expedient and ethically responsible manner.”

If they, and we in our own lives, do that, I hope we will all someday hear, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.”

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Better than I used to be

For most of high school I didn’t really care for science class.  Introduction to Physical Science was OK my freshman year, but I didn’t like biology in my sophomore year, and I really despised chemistry as a junior.  Come senior year, however, I actually really enjoyed physics.  The teacher was great, and I found the subject matter intuitive and engaging.

I’ve written here before that I’ve been questioning the structure of the atom since suffering through Mr. Creedon’s lectures in the 11th grade.  The past few books I’ve read have been on quantum physics, and once again I was teased into believing that I might finally be told how a quantum jump (when an electron moves from one orbit to another, without being any place in between) works.  Alas, once again I was disappointed.

The last of my trifecta of books on this subject was Kenneth Ford’s 101 Quantum Questions, and early on in the book – question 26, to be exact – the question “What is a quantum jump?” is proposed.  I was excited, as I thought I might finally have an answer.  I wish that the question was instead “How does a quantum jump work?” because while it was described, it was still not explained.  The author did mention that Einstein didn’t like them either, so at least I am in good company.

In a somewhat related question (72), Ford says that

Perhaps the most astonishing feature of that graph is that at five points… the probability is exactly zero.  This means that if the particle is in that particular state of motion, it will never be found at one of those positions.  If it is never going to be found at points B, C, or D, you  might ask, how could it get from A to E?  How could it cover the distance from one wall to the other without some probability of being found at every point in between?

I have been asking that question for more than a decade now.  The best answer Ford can come up with is that “Well, there are some things in quantum physics that we just have to accept whether we find them reasonable or not.”  Needless to say, this answer is less than satisfying.

Einstein reportedly called quantum physics “spooky.”  I think mind blowing is a more apt term.  A particle is both a wave when it suits it to be a wave, and a particle when it suits it to be a particle.  Not only that, but a particle by itself can travel backwards and forwards in time, jump through walls, and do any number of other things that completely defy common sense.

I am both intrigued and frustrated by the subject, but am painfully aware of how much else is out there of which I am even more ignorant, and have moved on in my reading pursuits.  I’m currently on a philosophy bent with Sandel and Kierkegaard both in the queue, and am on the lookout for a new topic to explore when I am done with them.  With this being the summer, and substantial time being spent on the beach in addition to a hefty diet of MBTA hours, I’m looking to branch out into something completely different.

 

Along those lines, I am taking my first math class in over 10 years.  While in grad school I would usually skip over the portions of journal articles that described how the studies were conducted and only skim the statistical analysis.  At one point, as more of a personal challenge than anything else, I decided to check out Statistics for Dummies out of the library and teach it to myself.

I did alright, although I don’t think I finished the book.  Several of the jobs I’ve been applying to want someone with an understanding of the subject, however, so I decided to pay someone who knows what they are talking about to teach it to me.  I’ve done very well so far, and am considering finding a calculus class in the fall so that I can take a college level physics class in the spring.

In Tim McGraw’s new song he talks about trying to become a better person.  I don’t think he means academically, and heaven knows there are plenty of areas where I could use some improvement, so lately I’ve been listening to it even more than We’re Not Young.  Still, I’d like to think that when he sings “I ain’t as good as I’m gonna get, but I’m better than I used to be,” that it applies to me as well.

Cogito ergo sum… a hologram?

As an undergrad at a school with a great philosophy program I heard lots of bad jokes.  Most philosophy majors were either on their way to becoming lawyers or priests, neither of which is known for their sense of humor.  Perhaps the most common was the standard Saturday night AIM away message of “Bibo ergo sum.”  I drink, therefore I am.

It was a play on Descartes‘ famous maxim that cogito ergo sum, or, I think, therefore I am.  I still remember pondering the implications of this statement when I read it in my own philosophy class.  Could it be possible that everything I’ve ever known is a hoax? That the laptop in front of me doesn’t really exist?  Niether does my Jeep, or my bowl of Cheerios, or my mother?  That this is all just some big cosmic joke?

Turns out, it might just be.  New Scientist magazine is reporting that our entire universe might be a hologram (registration required).  No one is saying for certain, but it does explain some background noise researchers have been getting while trying to measure gravitational waves.

The holograms you find on credit cards and banknotes are etched on two-dimensional plastic films. When light bounces off them, it recreates the appearance of a 3D image. In the 1990s physicists Leonard Susskind and Nobel prizewinner Gerard ‘t Hooft suggested that the same principle might apply to the universe as a whole. Our everyday experience might itself be a holographic projection of physical processes that take place on a distant, 2D surface.

The “holographic principle” challenges our sensibilities. It seems hard to believe that you woke up, brushed your teeth and are reading this article because of something happening on the boundary of the universe. No one knows what it would mean for us if we really do live in a hologram, yet theorists have good reasons to believe that many aspects of the holographic principle are true.

Of all the sciences, physics has always been my favorite.  I have a copy of Einstein’s book explaining the special and general theories of relativity to laymen like myself – and I even understood it.  I still have plenty of questions, and even a pecking order for them.  At the top of the list is about the structure of the atom (all the empty space shouldn’t work, and how electrons get from one orbit to another) and how the universe could possibly curve and thus provide a boundry (by definition it seems it should be infinite).

This, however, has to jump to near the top of the list.  I always assumed one day I would get the opportunity to ask a physicist about them.  Now I’m back to worrying that just because I can ask the question, that doesn’t mean she will be able to answer it.  After all, she might not really be standing in front of me.

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